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Posted on Feb 5, 2014

Will The Sochi Games Be Safe For LGBT Visitors And Advocates?

LGBT and human rights advocates remain uncertain about what to expect in Russia under the international spotlight of the Olympics. Several organizations, along with the U.S. State Department, warn LGBT visitors to exercise caution.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi Feb. 4, 2014.

Leading advocates remain concerned over how Russian authorities will enforce the country's anti-LGBT propaganda law when it comes to LGBT visitors to the Sochi Winter Olympics — and what the broader atmosphere for those visitors will be.

Worry over the law itself is not new, but conflicting responses from the International Olympic Committee and Russian officials regarding the law's enforcement during the Olympics have put advocates on high alert ahead of the opening ceremonies Feb. 7 — especially for those advocates who will be on the ground in Sochi.

"It's hard to imagine something not happening given all that has transpired to date," said Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, who arrived in Russia on Tuesday. "Clearly there is risk involved with being here but given the enormous opportunity to raise awareness about what's going on in Russia, the risk has to be weighed against the reward."

In the half-year since the law was approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the LGBT community there has faced an "unchecked" increase in violence and discrimination and at least a handful of people have been prosecuted for violating the law, according to LGBT advocates at the Human Rights Campaign.

As Tanya Cooper, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, "By turning a blind eye to hateful homophobic rhetoric and violence, Russian authorities are sending a dangerous message as the world is about to arrive on its doorstep for the Olympics that there is nothing wrong with attacks on gay people."

In an interview last month, Putin said, "There are no fears for people with this nontraditional orientation who plan to come to Sochi as guests or participants." But, he also has continued to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, saying to gay people, "You can feel relaxed and calm [in Sochi], but leave children alone, please."

Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel at Human Rights First, is currently traveling to Sochi with a small team and said they are "very concerned" by the propaganda law and any potential confrontation at the games.

"A lot of this is guessing," Gaylord told BuzzFeed. "We will learn more when we get there on the ground — what it feels like in terms of safety. A lot of Russians we are talking to think that there won't be much incidents in terms of the Russian propaganda law because they want the Olympics to go smoothly. I think there's not going to be a big appetite for enforcing the anti-LGBT propaganda law."

Advocates agree that with Sochi under the spotlight of the Olympics and the microscope of critics across the globe, the Russian government could very well choose to avoid incidents involving the anti-LGBT law and relax its enforcement. Foreigners who violate the law, though, could be detained for up to 15 days before being deported from Russia.

"There are a lot of more questions than answers with Sochi in general," said Andre Banks, co-founder and executive director of All Out. "I think on one hand, the Russian government has been intentionally vague on how they are going to deal with any kind of political discussion related to LGBT issues. On the other hand, they have an incentive for it to go well and it's hard to see them policing Olympians at the Olympics."

Many are concerned, though, that if the games transpire without incident, the world's attention will stray from the discriminatory policies and violence perpetrated against Russia's LGBT community.

"If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that with the world's eyes looking at Sochi, they are going to be more hesitant to crack down on LGBT people," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, director of communications at HRC. "I think the real danger is that Russia puts on a good show for the next couple of weeks and then LGBT people who remain in Russia will still be at great peril and the world will not have had the opportunity to see what that reality is like."

And with the opening ceremonies in Sochi this Friday, critics of the anti-LGBT climate in Russia, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, are looking beyond the anti-LGBT laws and taking aim at the effects of those policies on public life for LGBT people in Russia.

"With President Putin's stamp of approval, Russia has effectively endorsed homophobia and incited an onslaught of violence against LGBTI people. The culture of impunity that protects the perpetrators of these hate crimes is disgraceful and unacceptable," said Kerry Kennedy, president of the RFK Center, in a statement.

A series of news reports on Channel 4 in the U.K. are looking at the violence and discrimination experienced by Russian LGBT people at the hands of anti-gay gangs and the government.

"As Russia hosts the Olympics in this atmosphere of homophobic hatred, the government needs to take urgent measures to support the rights of LGBT people and protect them," Human Rights Watch's Cooper said.

In January, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Americans planning to attend the Olympics, saying, "The law makes it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public, but lacks concrete legal definitions for key terms. Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes 'LGBT propaganda,' and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as 'LGBT propaganda.'"

Cole-Schwartz told BuzzFeed that the State Department's warnings have made travelers more aware of the risks involved with traveling to Russia for the games, adding that it's unlikely that LGBT Americans are unaware of the problems related to the law. However, HRC would neither recommend LGBT Americans go to the games or stay home.

"I don't think that we would have a position on that one way or another," Cole-Schwartz said. "[People] have to make good choices for themselves. If someone wants to go and show solidarity with LGBT Russians and take a stand, they should be aware that carries risks."

On Tuesday, top advisers assured President Obama that the U.S. is taking appropriate steps to ensure the safety of American citizens in Russia during a briefing on American efforts to support Russian security measures at the games, according to a White House spokesperson.

A request for additional comments from the State Department about LGBT safety at the games was not returned.